Year for Priests: Learning how to advance the dialogue

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

I have just completed my first month of classes at Detroit Catholic Central High School, which means that my students in Public Speaking are giving their first major presentations this week.  Everyone always enjoys “Speech Week,” not only because students get to hear other students but also because I allow the students to facilitate their own “Q&A” after their speech.

People believe that the most difficult aspects of a speech class concern the mechanics, but usually this is the easy part.  It only takes one time for students watching themselves on video to correct most of the issues, or my count of just how many times they said “um” to raise their awareness enough to cause dramatic improvement.

The more difficult issues often concern content — specifically, the student’s ability to critically defend their beliefs.  Far too many students focus their content on their own beliefs rather than considering the opinions and objections of the audience.  Though I allow students to present themselves without interruption during the speech, many students are quickly challenged by their peers during the Q&A session because the speaker failed to consider those to whom he was speaking.

The lesson is an important one:  unsubstantiated opinions sound good when you are the only one speaking, but they do very little to contribute to actual dialogue on any given topic.  This week, I am once again watching as students discover that classroom discussions are far more interesting when the data is more persuasive than the person.

All this leads me to a few thoughts regarding popular morality and “church-related” issues since many students attempt to present them during our class.  I must admit that I usually forbid issues such as the death penalty, abortion, contraception and the like as topics because (1) students are not willing to look beyond the surface reasons and therefore come up with incomplete data, and (2) three minutes is simply not enough time to tackle even one part of the issue.  However, being at this particular school, I decided to let them have at it, though I warn them about the dangers.

Today after a class discussion on abortion, one of my students asked if I would be willing to discuss the issue with his family and a few friends.  Surprised by this question, I asked him what was said in class to cause such a request.  He stated that he never thought about the issue as we discussed it after the speech, during which I asked, “how do we move beyond the preconceived notions that have left us in a stalemate, and advance the argument?  What is helpful/required for either side to listen to the opposing ideas with fresh ears?”  Needless to say, it sparked an interesting class discussion.

As I left the school, I could not help but think about the many people who would love to join in on this upcoming discussion.  Over the years, I have met several presenters who speak on moral issues with wonderful mechanics and persuasive passion, but fail to consider the opinions and objections of another’s point of view.  When this occurs, the result in society is the same as my classroom:  a series of short presentations that leads the speaker to believe something important was said, but offers little to advance the argument in a greater context.  The remedy, as my students are discovering, requires more than just good data but a totally different approach that puts the thoughts of the audience before our own.  It requires less judgment, few statements and more questions.  No doubt this is harder, but the result is almost always an “A”.

valkaFather Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May.

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Ambassador’s ceremony draws an eclectic crowd

A Supreme Court justice, an actor and a Catholic university president walk into the State Department…..

… and formalize the swearing in of their mutual friend, constitutional lawyer Douglas Kmiec, as ambassador to Malta.

What sounds like the opening to a stand-up routine was instead the scene in the Treaty Room at the State Department Sept. 2, a case of someone with a broad, diverse base of friends and colleagues if ever there was one.

Justice Samuel Alito, who worked with Kmiec at the Justice Department in the 1980s and is one of the six Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court; actor Martin Sheen, who is a fellow parishioner at Kmiec’s Catholic parish in California, and Vincentian Father David O’Connell, president of The Catholic University of America, where Kmiec was dean of the law school from 2001 to 2003, each had a role in the brief ceremony.

Kmiec, who is on hiatus as a columnist for Catholic News Service, holds an endowed chair in constitutional law at Pepperdine University School of Law, and previously was director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center on Law & Government, and the founder of its Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy.  As a lifelong Republican who helped write the Reagan administration’s legal arguments to the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade,  Kmiec stunned some of his friends and former allies with his support for Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign.

An article Kmiec wrote headlined “Reaganites for Obama” caught the eye of  Joshua DuBois, then Obama’s campaign director of religious outreach and now  director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“Are you for real?” Kmiec recalled being asked by DuBois in their first conversation. “Many people have asked that since then.”

Not long after Kmiec’s support for Obama became public, he was denied Communion on that basis at a Mass before he addressed a Catholic business group in California.  The priest, who was never identified, later apologized.

Kmiec went on to serve as a member of the campaign’s Catholic advisory group and wrote a book “Can a Catholic Support Him: Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama.” From his ambassadorial post, he will continue to serve the administration informally as an adviser on interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

DuBois noted that role would be especially appropriate from Malta, a historical crossroads of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Father O’Connell offered an invocation, Sheen led the Pledge of Allegiance and Alito administered the oath of office.

Afterward, Kmiec, Alito and Sheen each warmly greeted guests, many of whom asked to pose for photos with the ambassador, the  justice and the actor, who played President Jed Bartlett for seven seasons of the White House-based drama, “The West Wing.”

Despite political activism on a range of issues and his history as a “president” who Kmiec noted “didn’t raise anyone’s taxes and expanded everyone’s budgets,” Sheen said it was his first visit to the State Department.

Year for Priests: Improving the conversation, and diary from Rome

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — A parishioner sent me an e-mail asking for prayers for a priest in the U.S. who was rude and angry. I suppose there was a time when such behavior was chalked up to “Father having a bad day,” but now people wonder if “Father can handle the stress.”

Most priests do not consider what they do to be a job – it is a calling, a vocation. They may not impose any boundaries between what is work and what is play; they may refuse to distinguish between performing a role and living a life. But as demands increase, some limits have to be set. It’s fairly well-known that that ratio of priests to Catholics in the U.S. is good, compared to some other countries. And in those other places, laity, deacons and vowed religious have assumed leadership. Should we consider this model second-best or affirm it as the working of the Spirit? Such are my thoughts after reflecting on this e-mail for prayer.

For a long time, I have wanted to read the small book Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives by Theodore Zeldin. The title intrigued me since, for five years, I co-hosted a radio talk show with the theme of finding spirituality in leisure. Toward the end of the book Zeldin says he is looking for a new way to look at work. He envisions a world of “shopkeepers” who do not monitor their actions on efficiency but the quality of their conversations and personal relationships. I am not going to directly apply this model to the priesthood, but his suggestion does challenge me to raise the quality of my conversation. We only have to read the gospel of John to know how powerful it must have been to have a conversation with Jesus.


Diary Entry

Today Mira, a 14 year-old Palestinian our parish group met in a town near Bethlehem, will be playing at a premier music venue, Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica. The occasion is the annual citywide series of concerts commemorating 9/11. A foundation has paid the travel expenses for this talented young pianist and her father to come here. When we have a chance to talk, she confides that Mozart is in her soul. She hears his music in her head all the time. “I will not marry. It is just my art,” she declares when touring the National Academy of St. Cecilia, where List played. She passes a picture of her idol, Mozart: “He’s too fat in that picture. He was never that way!” The girl clearly has the definitive swagger of an elite musician. With just a bit more work on technique she could be a star.

A peace dove painted by local Palestinians on the security wall. (Photo courtesy Father Tom Holahan)

A peace dove in a flak jacket painted by local Palestinians on the security wall. (Photo courtesy Father Tom Holahan)

And this is no small thing for the beleaguered Palestinians. Last year, under the auspices of a U.N. education agency, she visited northern Italy to speak with school children about her experience growing up stateless and now, encircled by a gray cement “anti-terror” wall, a veritable prisoner in her own town, unable to leave it without official permission.


One of the best things about serving at “the American church in Rome” is being able to celebrate a wedding. This week the couple could not help gazing around at the colorful frescos as we have our planning meeting in the sanctuary. It took them over an hour to drive in from the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, where they are staying. Living in the Italian countryside, if just for a few days, is part of this dream wedding. Immediately after the ceremony, the best man rushed out the door to view Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy, ensconced under a skylight in the church across the street.

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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